Blog Post

Who speaks for the women of Wikipedia? Not the women of Wikipedia.

Who speaks for the women of Wikipedia? Not the women of Wikipedia.

In the past few days, there has been extensive coverage of Wikipedia’s “categorygate”. In this post, I am not concerned with the details of what happened during the debate over the category “American women novelists”. Needless to say, there has been outrage over what was perceived as sexism on Wikipedia and great wringing of hands over the fact that roughly 10% of the editorbase of Wikipedia is female and thus this travesty (if that is what it was) was allowed to happen. If only there were more women on Wikipedia, the argument goes, this would not have happened.

But no one has talked to the women who actually are on Wikipedia.

According to “Category:Female Wikipedian”, there are approximately 1800 Wikipedians who identify as female and have potentially interesting views on the gender dynamics of the site. Yet, in all of the press coverage that I have read, not one single female Wikipedian has been interviewed or quoted. Amanda Filipacchi, whose op-ed first started the debate; Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, who is not involved in the discussion in any significant way; female authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, whose Wikipedia pages would be affected and who tweeted about the debate; and male or gender-unidentified Wikipedians have all been quoted extensively. No press outlets that I know of quoted the female Wikipedian most responsible for gender outreach or a Wikipedian like myself, who is a female academic well-versed in both the inner-workings of Wikipedia and a scholar of literature.

This journalistic choice demonstrates that there was a predetermined narrative set up: sexist men on Wikipedia need to be tutored by feminist women outside it. Thus the voices of women on Wikipedia or feminist Wikipedians in the academy would have troubled that story. The narrative told by the media replicates some of the same problems that they are identifying with Wikipedia. By refusing to let the voices of the minority be heard - female Wikipedians - they are reinscribing and replicating an easy narrative about how sexism can simply be fixed by “adding women” to Wikipedia. Even if this narrative sounds feminist and progressive - it isn’t.

By ignoring all of the women already on Wikipedia, it is as if we are all invisible. As if all of the contributions, hard work, and debates we already contribute are utterly disregarded. Also, assuming that the women of Wikipedia haven’t thoughtfully considered many of these difficult questions about female representation and categorization, raised them on the site, and wrestled with them is insulting and, frankly, disheartening to the many of us that are here. In fact, the project to counter systemic bias was created on Wikipedia way back in October 2004. And in the last six weeks alone, there have been at least two organized US-wide edit-a-thons to focus on improving the coverage of women in Wikipedia and increasing the numbers of women editing.

Wikipedia is a self-reflective site - many of us here know the site’s weaknesses and are actively trying to remedy them. Talk to us and you will find out about our many efforts and successes.

Next post: The politics of recruiting women to Wikipedia



Thank you Adrianne for sharing your thoughts.  I'm sure the women editing wikipedia are industrious and making a difference.

However, you miss the point: a general consciousness raising about this whole issue beyond the 'walls' of wikipedia is LONG overdue.  Without a groundswell of support and a cultural shift, the inside work will be difficult.  The reason?  Because no one thinks about these categories and sees that they just mirror what is generally acceptable in the culture and in that last place of change: academia.  

As long as people think that just because a woman writes a book that the book is primarily pertinent to women, we'll be missing out on full recognition and acknowledgement of the richness women add to literature.  Ditto all other 'subcategories'.

Why is this important to change on wikipedia?  And through a larger conversation?  Because this change must start somewhere -- and wikipedia both reflects and reinforces our internal categorizations -- ones that in part are merely contrived by outdated social norms and not truly reflective of what makes sense.  Rationalizing these categorizations is just an echo of the internalized bias of the speaker/writer/editor.

Progress takes effort from many sides -- the larger conversation about this is not a statement about the women who edit wikipedia.  It's a statement about shifting our hidden cultural biases.  The conversation needs to be a groundswell and come from many sides to actually have momentum.  

Be thankful its happening.


The problem is there is thinking about these categories.  There is often a lot of thinking about these categories.  I know African American women in politics was one area where some one tried to remove that category under the rationale it was not a notable subject.  For sports, there is often the rationale that the men's team is better known.  It is also easier to segregate out the women before going for the men.  (This led to such delightful fun as women's softball players being created with all the women softball players being moved over and the category for a historically women dominated sport being left with only three men in it.  There was another effort to rename / recategorize national netball teams to include the word women in it, despite the fact that men have historically been prohibited by rule from playing.  I do sports, with a focus on women's sport so I will own a level of insecurity because my area is traditionally not female space, despite extreme exclusion that multiple governments document regularly.  The audience that is attracted to Wikipedia does not care so much to analyze Wikipedia from the perspective of women in that area and considering how much sport plays into women's health/human rights/workers rights issues in a global level... and I digress... )

There is often some sort of gender categorization issue at least once a week.   People saying these categories are non-notable and trying to eliminate women's categories, people saying that the gender issue has been resolved so no need to separate out women and separate men, people saying that women should be moved into their own category because they are of interest to a specific audience.  It gets very, very, very tiring to always be battling these battles because you regularly offend people, often men, who will then try to drive you off the project.  (I have been accused of introducing systematic bias to Wikipedia by getting too many women on the front page of English Wikipedia.)  I can fight battles that I am unlikely to win, or I can create higher quality articles about women that comply with Wikipedia policies.  Which one matters more? From my perspective, it is the quality content thing.  By having higher quality articles about women, people accept these women are more legitimate as competitors and equal to their male peers.  Yes, I would really like categorization to better reflect reality but one has to pick ones battles and decide, as a contributor, where time is better spent.